Ancient Egyptian Skulls Reveal Early Attempts to Treat Cancer and Trauma

The ancient Egyptians, renowned for their exceptional medical skills, could identify, describe, and treat a wide range of diseases and injuries. They crafted prostheses and even placed dental fillings. However, their understanding of cancer remained limited, as evidenced by a recent study of two ancient skulls.

An international team of researchers examined the skulls, both over 4,000 years old, to explore the boundaries of ancient Egyptian traumatology and oncology. The findings, published in Frontiers in Medicine, shed light on how the Egyptians grappled with complex cranial fractures and attempted to treat cancer.

Investigating Ancient Egyptian Medicine Through Skeletal Remains

Tatiana Tondini, a researcher at the University of Tübingen and lead author of the study, and her colleagues analyzed two skulls from the University of Cambridge’s Duckworth Collection. Skull 236, belonging to a 30-35-year-old male from 2687-2345 BCE, exhibited a large lesion consistent with excessive tissue destruction, known as neoplasm. Numerous small, round metastasized lesions were also scattered across the skull.

Intriguingly, the researchers discovered cutmarks around these lesions, likely made with a sharp metal instrument. “When we first observed the cutmarks under the microscope, we could not believe what was in front of us,” Tondini remarked. This suggests that the ancient Egyptians performed surgical interventions related to cancerous cells, engaging in experimental treatments or medical explorations.

The Prevalence of Cancer in Antiquity

Skull E270, belonging to a female over 50 years old from 663-343 BCE, also displayed a large lesion indicative of a cancerous tumor that caused bone destruction. This finding challenges the notion that cancer is solely a modern affliction, influenced by lifestyle, longevity, and environmental factors. Cancer, it seems, was a common pathology even in ancient times.

Additionally, skull E270 showed two healed lesions from traumatic injuries, one likely resulting from close-range violence with a sharp weapon. The presence of such a wound on a female individual is uncommon, as most violence-related injuries are found on males. This raises questions about the role of women in ancient conflicts and warfare.

The researchers, however, acknowledge the limitations of studying skeletal remains, which are often incomplete and lack clinical history. “In archaeology we work with a fragmented portion of the past, complicating an accurate approach,” noted co-author Prof Albert Isidro, a surgical oncologist specializing in Egyptology.

Despite these challenges, the study offers a unique perspective on ancient Egyptian medicine’s approach to cancer and trauma. It lays the groundwork for future research in paleo-oncology and encourages a deeper understanding of how ancient societies confronted these medical challenges.

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